The Child Maintenance Service could expose vulnerable women to indirect abuse by their former partners: that’s the rather startling message of the single parent charity Gingerbread, as outlined in a recent Guardian article.
We have already taken a look at the Child Maintenance Service. This successor to the famous/ infamous (delete according to preference!) Child Support Agency, which has collected almost as much criticism in its 19-year history as maintenance, will begin to take on the responsibilities of the older agency from this month.
The first parents to be affected will be those with four children by the same father. The system will then gradually rolled out to other parents over the course of next year.
However, the arrival of the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) will herald the beginning of a very new era for the nation’ single parents. The CMS will be focused on voluntary child maintenance arrangements made directly between the parents, to be called Family Based Arrangements. A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions told the Guardian that: “…evidence shows [this] is in the best interests of children”.
All affected parents will be offered the chance to make such arrangements, regardless of their past record of payment. However, when parents cannot or will not reach a voluntary arrangement, the CMS will charge each parent for compulsory collection – although the non-resident parent will pay almost twice as much as the parent with responsibility for the child or children. For all the opprobrium it attracted, the CSA always provided a free service.
In a perfect world, the new CMS approach might – might – work. After all, why should the taxpayer pay to oil the wheels of parenthood, especially in cash-strapped, economically-stretched times? Why can’t parents be adult about their responsibilities? Every pound collected by the Child Support Agency apparently costs the taxpayer 35p: that’s £500 million a year, money that could be spent elsewhere.
But we do not live in a perfect world and, as any family lawyer will confirm, there is no shortage of fathers out there who repeatedly shirk their responsibilities or who abuse the mothers of their children. Has the government forgotten about such people?
This is a point well made in the Guardian article, by journalist Jill Insley. Discussing single mother Sarah, whose former partner assaulted her on several occasions, she says:
“…the government wants to give Sarah’s abusive ex-partner the option of choosing to make child support payments directly to her for their toddler son’s upkeep – even though he has a record of non-payment. If he fails to keep up with payments the government will charge Sarah for collecting the money on her son’s behalf.”
Sarah herself is fully aware that former partners such as hers will never agree to voluntary payments and will be quickly pushed into a compulsory, chargeable arrangement:
“He wouldn’t pay anyway. He’s got five children, and he doesn’t pay voluntarily for any of them. It’s just disgusting that the government intends to charge for collecting the money. I feel like my son is being punished for the actions of his dad.”
Sarah escaped her partner after one final row in which he tried to attack her through the car window and snatch away the baby. She has had no contact with him for the last two years and kept her location a secret.
Such tragedies are played out daily across the country: women fleeing relationships so abusive they must keep their locations a secret for their own and their children’s safety.
The government insists that the CMS payment system will not require vulnerable women to reveal any personal information, including their bank details, to their abusive ex-partners. But the government’s insistence on a parent-to-parent payment system, rather than parent-to-government-agency, leaves the door open for another form of emotional abuse.
As Janet Albeson of the Gingerbread charity told the Guardian:
“The government has accepted that domestic violence can take the form of financial abuse, yet it intends to put a victim in the position where she is potentially exposed to further attempts at manipulation and control, by the payer altering payment dates or withholding money. This runs the risk of perpetuating the abuse.”
I cannot shake off the suspicion that in the CMS we see another example of the government’s enthusiasm for cost-cutting mediation. Just as they seem intent on diverting as many families as possible away from the courts and into mediation, they are now attempting to pull the same stunt in the child maintenance arena. It is all, it seems, about the bottom line. But human life in all its complexities will never fit onto a spreadsheet.